Right now, if you mention yellow jackets in casual conversation, you’re likely to get one of two responses. One might be to ask if you’re talking about the drama series on Showtime. But the other might be rising panic. Anyone who watched the movie My Girl as a child will remember Macaulay Culkin's character swarmed by bees (not yellow jackets, mind you — but the association is real). And almost everyone seems to know someone who is allergic to stings.
Whether the buzzing insects deserve their reputation as a menace depends a lot on how many close encounters you’ve had lately. But this much is true: If provoked, yellow jackets will sting — often over and over — and summon many friends to the fight. They can build nests that overwhelm porch chairs and fill the insides of abandoned cars. And now, thanks to mild winters and long, dry summers, people and yellow jackets will be seeing more of each other.
When a Swarm of Yellow Jackets Interrupts Your Date
On a gorgeous fall day in 1990, Tiffany Trent, now 48, and her then-boyfriend Andrew, were driving along the Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway when they decided to go for a romantic stroll up one of the fire roads near the Peaks of Otter, northeast of Roanoke. The couple found a place to sit in a pretty clearing in the woods and, unknowingly, put a towel down directly over an underground yellow jacket nest concealed by leaves.
As Tiffany stood to leave, her heel sunk into the depression created by the nest, then she stepped directly in it. “A faint buzz got louder and louder,” she says, as scores of yellow jackets roiled out of the ground. The insects flew into her shoes and overalls, stinging her over and over again. She and Andrew scrambled for safety. “He was chasing me through the woods, hitting me with the towel trying to knock them off,” she recalls. As she ran, the yellow jackets and larvae that had gotten in her shoe squished. “It was like running with snot in your shoes.”
Tiffany sprinted nearly a mile back to the car. “I’ve never run so fast in my life,” she says. “I was in a great deal of pain” but the adrenaline rush was the strongest part. “I would have stood in front of a fire hose to get them off of me.” Luckily, she escaped with no permanent injuries. Even the relationship survived (Tiffany and Andrew married five years later).
Don’t Let It Bug You
Not all, or even most, encounters with yellow jackets, which are a type of wasp, are that dramatic or dangerous. In fact, in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged just 74 deaths from contact with “hornets, wasps and bees.” (In that same time period, 539 people died from falling off ladders.) And allergic reactions to insect stings will affect just 5% of the population during their lifetime.
But no matter where you live, from the tundras of Alaska to the humid South, you might be seeing many more yellow jackets than in years past. That’s because, due to climate change, winters are no longer cold or long enough in some places to control the insects’ populations as they have in the past.
To understand why milder winters mean more yellow jackets, you have to know a bit about their lifecycle, says Jacqueline Serrano, an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service in Wapato, Washington.
In the spring, a new yellow jacket queen starts a nest. Some yellow jackets nest in cavities – an abandoned mole or snake hole, the gap in a tree or fence — while others prefer life above ground, building papery structures that hang from branches like dangerous volleyballs. The first generation of yellow jackets, all female, grow up and become workers sourcing meat* for their baby sisters.
(*Yes, meat. Yellow jackets hunt caterpillars, grubs and will even nibble your burger for sustenance. They deliver the meat to larvae in the hive, who digest it and secrete sugars that feed the workers. Adults are always hungry though, and will also sip flower nectar or your soda.)
Through the summer, queens continue laying eggs, and by late summer and fall, they begin laying eggs that will become males and new queens, which fly off to mate. Then the males and workers die off in the winter, killed off either by cold or because there’s no more food available. The new queens shelter away somewhere to make it through the winter. When spring comes, the young queens emerge, and it’s time to do it all again.
Or at least that’s how it used to happen. These days, with spring coming earlier and fall later, not as many yellow jackets die off in the winter. Between 1980 and 2020, for example, climate change forced the growing season in the contiguous 48 states to stretch two weeks longer. Joel Voron, an integrated pest management specialist at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia, where he manages the pests that take up residence in the historical buildings and properties, says six years ago he would get rid of 15 to 20 yellow jacket nests every year. In 2021, he destroyed 35 nests. “We're just not getting cold winters like we used to,” he says.
With early springs and long, dry summers, the pregnant queens can get started building nests earlier, allowing them to breed more and more workers that stay out later and later in the year. And more workers mean bigger nests. Nests that survive a second year, called super-nests, can reach epic proportions.
“You can get colonies that number in the tens to hundreds of thousands,” says Charles Ray, an entomologist at Auburn University in Alabama. He says he has seen colonies covering entire chairs, and one inside an old car that was nearly 10 cubic feet. In those cases, new queens stay through the winter, and there are more of them. "Each one of those is capable of producing the same number of eggs as her mom.”
Not in My Backyard
While warmer temperatures lead to a larger population of yellow jackets, drought may contribute to our increased interaction with them. When wild vegetation dies off due to lack of rain, yellow jackets and other insects hit up other sources of food. “Home gardens, particularly those that are irrigated, throughout the summer become one of the few oases that yellow jackets can go to to find the resources they're looking for,” says Gail Langellotto, an entomologist at Oregon State Extension in Corvallis.
Even Alaska is suffering — climate change is happening faster there than in other places in the U.S. “It's like living in a science experiment,” says Jeffrey Demain, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Washington and the Immunology Center of Alaska.
Case in point: between 2001 and 2006, Demain tracked a 43% increase of Alaskans seeking treatment for insect stings, the majority of which were from yellow jackets. In some areas of the state such as Kodiak, on the southern gulf, the increase was only 11%, from 437 to 487 stings. But in Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community he studied, there were 16 reports in 2001 and 119 in 2006 — a 626% increase. In fact, in 2006, the city of Fairbanks canceled all outdoor activities due to the over-abundance of yellow jackets, and two people died from their stings.
Even when yellow jacket stings aren’t fatal, they are quite unpleasant. Unlike honeybees, which sting once, yellow jackets can and often do sting multiple times, injecting venom each time. In his book The Sting of the Wild, Justin O. Schmidt describes the sting as a “hot, burning complex pain.”
Tiffany Trent agrees. “To me a honeybee sting feels like a zap,” she says. “But the yellow jacket is just really painful. Like an ongoing burn.”
But the insects aren’t all bad. Yellow jackets “go after other insects, you know, maybe problematic insects or sometimes just other native insects,” Serrano says. They can be good to have around your garden, attacking the bugs that munch on your veggies.
How to Get Rid of Yellow Jackets
Deadly reactions to insect stings may make you want to ensconce yourself in mosquito netting or invest in a blowtorch. But the first step to preventing stings is keeping yellow jackets away in the first place. “We do a lot of things as humans that really attract pests,” says Jody Green, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “We’re providing them with so much food, opening up our pop cans for them to crawl in and generally creating a buffet for them with our trash.”
Not leaving out food and trash will help keep the insects at a distance. In particular, rinse your recyclables, Voron says. Clearing up fruit from trees and bushes can also keep unwelcome visitors away. In drier areas, keeping irrigation and water features to a minimum can also keep yellow jackets from coming around. Finally, avoid heavy sweet or floral body products, Voron says. “If you smell like sugary sweet something,” he says. “They're gonna be on you.”
If you encounter a yellow jacket, the first thing Voron and Ray stress is not to slap it or trap it (translation: do not anger a yellow jacket). Walking away is the way to go. There's a myth that yellow jackets like to sting, Ray says. “They don't, they’re just defending their colony.” If you do get stung once, leave and don’t come back. A yellow jacket sting marks you with a chemical signal, Ray explains. "It says ‘sting here.’”
When Jeanna Raye, a dental policy analyst in Youngsville, North Carolina, mowed over a yellow jacket nest in her yard in August 2021, the insects chased her back into the house and left her covered in stings. After the incident, she asked her neighbors on a community forum online how to get rid of the nest. “I got some of the most ridiculous answers,” she said. People suggested pouring gasoline in the hole and lighting a match, pouring in Pepsi and Mentos to make an explosion and pouring boiling water.
But those old wives’ tales aren’t the way to go, says Voron, the integrated pest management specialist at Colonial Williamsburg. Pouring any liquid, especially if the nest is in the ground, presents a challenge. Liquid will build up at the bottom, but pour back out of the hole before it fills up the nest, leaving plenty of air — and yellow jackets — at the top. That’s why ground nests don’t flood in the rain.
If you’re set on getting rid of them, Voron says, “my main recommendation is going to be: Seek professional help.” Amateurs who are scared of getting stung and not sure what they’re doing can be a recipe for disaster.
Tiffany and Andrew, the couple that survived a yellow jacket swarm during a date, took a different tack. They eventually settled into a house with a large garden in Blacksburg, Virginia. They keep chickens, ducks and even bees. Yellow jackets are back in their lives, too. The family has several nests in the yard. One is under a tree, right near where her two children play. “When it gets really hot and muggy here there are more of them,” Trent says. “And the kids sometimes do run and take off and not think about where they're going.”
Last summer, Trent noticed that a skunk had taken out one of her nests. Raye also had some of her buzzing problems taken care of by a hungry skunk. “When I saw that the skunk had dug out one of the nests in the yard,” Trent says, “I just thought, ‘Hey, this is like nature doing its thing.’” Raccoons also like to feast on yellow jacket larvae. Nature might sting sometimes, but it’s also here to help.
Trent plans to take steps to get rid of the yellow jacket nest near the kids’ play area, but the other two nests, she says, can stay. “They live here, too.”
Is it a Yellow Jacket?
Study the differences among these commonly-confused insects.
Illustrations: Getty Images